French writer/director Céline Sciamma has hypnotizing powers—her enchanting appeal is unmissable in both the sensual “Water Lilies” and the glittering future story “Girlhood.” With “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Filled with a buttery-matte palette and bold, painted camera sweeps throughout—lensed by Claire Mathon with patient persistence—Sciamma’s newest tale of dreamy romance. It’s a subtle drama that develops through the liberating power of art, where a hopeful yet consuming love affair between two young women amidst patriarchal customs, and remains hidden in their hearts both because of and despite it.
This forbidden love (“forbidden” in the world that surrounds them, but so instinctive and inescapable for this couple) might just be the sexiest affair you’ll see on cinema screens this year, or because… I can’t even remember. This is thanks in large part to Sciamma’s well-considered decisions about what to show versus how much to disguise in scenes of selfless intimacy. In fact, he’s so careful in his “Portrait” that one can’t ignore the filmmaker’s lopsided opposition to the cold, soft-core sex scenes of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” another love story from the recent LGBTQ canon. Sciamma’s most erotic films make. It’s a suggestive longing, the camera’s respectful caress of the skin, the diligent gazes the two women locked in it prove to be the most lively. These gazes—first, exchanged out of obligation, then, increasingly valued—are stirring up, simply because potential lovers have no choice but to dwell in their personal safety when any sexual renunciation seems impossible. they.
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And this wordless adoration is also thrilling, because that is what determines the beginning of their relationship. At first, it’s an unsympathetic deal centered on Héloïse (Adle Haenel from “Nocturama” and “The Unknown Girl”), but is moved by her mother (played by veteran actor Valeria Golino) despite her daughter’s passive-aggressive protests. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a hired artist and painter, brought to the secluded home of Héloïse to paint a dignified portrait of herself to send to her potential suitor, according to pre-marital tradition. The twist is Héloïse’s uncooperative stubbornness—she doesn’t know Marianne’s duties, and is instead told that the painter is only there to accompany her during her daily beach walks.
Meanwhile, Marianne must retrieve as many of Héloïse’s faces and figures as possible, before transferring them to the canvas from memory in secret. But this improbable method only results in a less-than-ideal (and frankly, a bit too conventional and square) image of Héloïse. As the truth unfolds, when the women finally shed their tight corsets (metaphorically at first, and then come true), Héloïse’s reflection on the fabric takes on a soulful form; in other words, the way Marianne began to see it.
There’s a trace of Jane Campion’s “The Piano” poetic elegy here—another love story that unites impossible couples through the splendor of art. You could also call “Portrait” the “Carol” that Vermeer touches, with its subtle textures, layered composition, and romantic touch of chiaroscuro lighting. This contrast of shadows and luminosity is most pronounced in the dark corners of the home’s country kitchen, and is especially heightened during the mid-night section featuring an unforgettable piece of a cappella singing around a campfire — so captivating that the sequence feels and sounds like a sexual climax.
But above all, “Portrait of a Fiery Woman” is her own, wondrous, extraordinary; a complete artistic vision in which every directive step is perfected and every thematic inquiry, seamlessly interwoven. So when Sciamma generously brought the storyline to Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid in need of an abortion, the film didn’t get out of line. scope. Instead, this thread brings together the theme of “Portrait” against patriarchy, while slowly building a sense of brotherhood within the confines of a remote house living in the shadow of an invisible man. With a heartbreaking, “Call Me by Your Name”-esque finale exhausting Haenel’s emotive face (you’ll never hear “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, motif repeating itself, the same way again), Sciamma’s prize for 2019 sets the highest bar for any romance that will come after.
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